April Krowel, Ph.D., HSPP
Breaking Barriers and Building Inclusivity: Celebrating National Disability Awareness Month
March is National Disability Awareness Month, a time to promote awareness and understanding of the challenges and experiences of individuals with disabilities. This month-long observance provides an opportunity to recognize the contributions of individuals with disabilities and to promote inclusivity and accessibility in all areas of society, including healthcare.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 15% of the world's population lives with some form of disability, and this population is at a higher risk of experiencing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and PTSD. Access to mental health care is essential for individuals with disabilities to achieve optimal mental and emotional well-being. However, many individuals with disabilities face significant barriers when seeking mental health treatment.
Some of the common barriers to mental health care for individuals with disabilities are as follows:
Systemic Ableism: Ableism is a form of discrimination against individuals with disabilities, and it is often embedded in social and institutional structures. Many mental health care systems have been designed without considering the unique needs and challenges faced by individuals with disabilities, resulting in a lack of accessible services.
Lack of Accessible Services: Many mental health care facilities and services are not designed to be accessible to individuals with disabilities. This can include physical barriers, such as buildings that are not wheelchair accessible or lack of accessible transportation. It can also include communication barriers, such as a lack of sign language interpreters or communication devices for individuals with speech disabilities.
Stigma: Individuals with disabilities may face significant social stigma and discrimination, which can prevent them from seeking mental health care. Stigma can also make it difficult for mental health providers to provide effective care, as they may not be familiar with the unique experiences and challenges faced by individuals with disabilities.
Financial Barriers: Mental health care can be expensive, and individuals with disabilities may have limited financial resources due to their disability status. This can make it difficult for them to access necessary mental health care services.
Lack of Knowledge among Mental Health Providers: Many mental health providers may lack knowledge and training on how to provide effective care to individuals with disabilities. This can result in a lack of appropriate treatment options, misdiagnosis, and inadequate care.
It is important to provide inclusive mental health treatment that addresses these barriers and supports individuals with disabilities in their mental health journey. Here are some key strategies to providing inclusive mental health treatment:
Accessibility and Accommodation: Mental health professionals must prioritize accessibility and accommodation to ensure that individuals with disabilities can access services. Accommodations may include providing wheelchair accessibility, sign language interpretation, captioning, or adaptive technology to facilitate communication.
Cultural Competency: Mental health professionals should strive to develop cultural competency in working with individuals with disabilities. This involves understanding the unique challenges and experiences of individuals with disabilities and recognizing and addressing any biases or assumptions.
Person-Centered Care: Person-centered care involves a collaborative approach that values the individual's preferences, goals, and unique circumstances. Mental health professionals should involve individuals with disabilities in decision-making, listen to their concerns, and provide treatment that is tailored to their specific needs.
Trauma-Informed Care: Individuals with disabilities are at a higher risk of experiencing trauma, and trauma can have a significant impact on mental health. Mental health professionals should adopt a trauma-informed approach that recognizes the impact of trauma and supports individuals in their healing process.
Advocacy: Mental health professionals should advocate for the rights and needs of individuals with disabilities, including access to healthcare and community resources. This may involve partnering with disability advocacy organizations, educating the public about the experiences of individuals with disabilities, and promoting policies that promote inclusivity and accessibility.
To increase knowledge about working with individuals with disabilities, mental health providers can take the following steps:
Attend training and workshops: Mental health providers can attend training and workshops on disability-related issues, such as accessibility, communication strategies, and cultural competency. These trainings can be offered by disability advocacy organizations, academic institutions, or professional associations.
Consult with disability experts: Mental health providers can consult with disability experts, such as disability rights advocates, disability service providers, and disability studies scholars, to gain a deeper understanding of disability-related issues and best practices for working with individuals with disabilities.
Read disability-related literature: Mental health providers can read disability-related literature, such as academic articles, memoirs, and advocacy materials, to gain insight into the experiences of individuals with disabilities and the social and cultural factors that impact their lives.
Collaborate with disability organizations: Mental health providers can collaborate with disability organizations, such as independent living centers, disability rights groups, and disability-specific health clinics, to learn about the needs and experiences of individuals with disabilities and to work together to promote accessibility and inclusivity in mental health care.
Seek feedback from individuals with disabilities: Mental health providers can seek feedback from individuals with disabilities about their experiences with mental health care and their suggestions for improvement. This can be done through surveys, focus groups, or individual interviews, and can help mental health providers identify areas where they can improve their services and better meet the needs of individuals with disabilities.
By taking these steps, mental health providers can increase their knowledge and skills in working with individuals with disabilities, promote inclusivity and accessibility in mental health care, and provide better support.
World Health Organization. (2021). Disability. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/disability
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2021). Mental Health Conditions & Disability. https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Common-with-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions-Disability
Hergenrather, K. C., Rhodes, S. D., & Clark, G. (2019). Understanding disability and the importance of cultural competency in mental health care. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 30(4), 1486-1495. doi: 10.1353/hpu.2019.0119
National Institute of Mental Health. (2019). Mental Health and Individuals with Disabilities. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/mental-health-and-individuals-with-disabilities/index.shtml
Iezzoni, L. I. (2013). Eliminating health and health care disparities among the growing population of people with disabilities. Health Affairs, 32(3), 1-8. https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/full/10.1377/hlthaff.2012.1091